Desert Companion

Sonnet boom

Erica Anzalone’s gutsy verse embraces — and explodes — formalism

Few bards these days can rock a red dress and cowboy boots and still be taken seriously by their professors and academic peers. But Las Vegas poet Erica Anzalone makes it look easy as she steps up to the microphone in the Contemporary Arts Center on this March afternoon. The event is Neon Lit, a monthly reading featuring MFA creative writing students from UNLV, and Anzalone is the program’s obvious star.

Her poems exude carnality and danger in an arena where pretension and autobiography reign. Like the best sonneteers — Sylvia Plath, John Berryman — Anzalone oscillates easily between form and free verse. Her language is visceral, aggressive, her images hauntingly raucous — a “stolen heart gone peekaboo on bumper cars,” a realm of “acid lullabies” and “G-spot certainty,” a romance described as “two rank porcupines, nudging closer until our soft bellies touched.” These are vivid voices and scenarios, a tad on the eerie side.

Anzalone reads aloud a new poem called “Beatitude,” which begins:

I would like to thank

The cushy chairs

and the green

trees in particular.

Torch singer

playing a ukulele,

Support comes from

you also deserve

a zephyr of gratitude.

I like the way you throw

spaghetti at the sky

until it sticks and stones

the moon. You

cry beer tears; I’ll

dry. No, I am

not the pedigreed Alsatian

you ordered online.

But I will gladly lick

the chocolate chips

melting in your

lambent hair.

Wild trajectories

Chatting with Anzalone later in a blue-collar Vegas bar like The Stake Out, where classic rock tunes like “More Than a Feeling” constantly blast from a jukebox, seems appropriate, given her working-class Boston roots. (“I drop my Rs a lot when I’m overtired or drink too much,” she laughs.) Neither of her parents earned a college degree, but they had a dream, like many people, that their kids would live better lives. So Anzalone had more books than toys growing up, for which she’s grateful. 

[HEAR MORE: Cowboy poet Baxter Black reads his verse about the Old West on “KNPR’s State of Nevada” ]

After her father died when she was 7, she took deeper refuge in reading and, later, writing. She began keeping a journal at age 10, and poems soon followed, the usual adolescent angst. It wasn’t until she attended Emerson College and met professor and poet Bill Knott that she began to write “more serious” verse. 

“His passion is infectious,” says Anzalone. “At the time I didn’t know he’s a cult figure.”

Indeed, Knott is a legendary and once-controversial presence in American letters. In the late ’60s, he published a collection of verse under a pen name, Saint Geraud. The book, which Knott has since disowned, was presented as a young man’s suicide poem.

“I just knew that he cared a lot about poetry, enough to let you know when your work was good and when it wasn’t,” says Anzalone of her mentor. “I recall him describing poetry as flying from A to M to H to Z, whereas prose is plodding along from A to B to C and so on. It was difficult to change my thinking that way, but once I did I was hooked.”

Her teaching career took a similarly wild trajectory. She taught English as a Second Language in San Francisco and Prague before earning an MFA in Poetry from University of Iowa’s prestigious writing program. She taught literature and creative writing as a visiting prof at Drake University before coming to Vegas via a Schaeffer Fellowship at UNLV. Her debut, Samsara, just won Noemi Press’ first book prize and is due out in 2012.

“Persistence,” she says, when asked how to get one’s book of verse published. “I had entered contests for years. Sometimes I was a semi-finalist, but more often than not I was simply rejected. Noemi is a great press for innovative writing, so I’m happy my collection has found a home with them. They make beautiful books.”

The book’s title comes from the Hindu concept of reincarnation, or the wheel of death and rebirth. The title poem is a powerful lyric in which “the butcher wraps the stars in newspaper” and “the babies of the dead have had their incubators turned on.” Lovely, dread-tinged images. They might be literal babies or perhaps they’re poems themselves. Whatever the case, they’re fragile, only the incubators offering hope that life will follow death. 

Pregnant clause

The notion of samsara pops up again with “Sojourner,” in which a female narrator undergoes an abortion. The speaker doesn’t feel good about her decision, but it’s not the right time for a child. The speaker says, “Come back to me another day.” 

“There are lots of contemporary books of poetry about the experience of pregnancy and motherhood, but very little about having an abortion,” says Anzalone. “It’s a part of women’s experience that should be written about more. I wanted to approach it from a spiritual perspective. The speaker senses the presence of a spirit within her, feels love for him or her, but still knows there’s no other choice but to turn that spirit away.”

While the poem’s sonnet form imbues the grief-colored moment with a timeless quality, Anzalone’s formalism isn’t always perfectly intact.

 “I also use broken sonnets in a loose iambic pentameter,” she says. “The sonnet is a kind of Eden. What can human beings do in Eden except mess it up beautifully? I love working within constraints because, paradoxically, that’s where you can find freedom.”

In our free verse-dominated era, some poets may see working in form to be paralyzing, but Anzalone finds it liberating. It forces her to devise intriguing slant rhymes, to take on challenging subject matter.

“My ear is often smarter than I am,” she says. “Art and poetry should include all aspects of the human experience, including what is aggressive or grotesque. People, and women in particular, have been taught to deny these less savory aspects of experience.”

For every formal moment, there’s a counterpoint like “Pregnant with White Noise,” which offers fractured typography, as if Anzalone purposefully and precisely shattered the words on the page. In essence, the blank page becomes her canvas.

“I needed more room to stomp around in,” she says. “All the poems in Samsara began as sonnets, but then — to use the Eden analogy again — I said, ‘No, I want to talk to the snake and eat the apple.’”

The materiality of language is important to Anzalone — the way the poem looks and sounds. In her view, poets and writers are using a medium in the same way as painters.

“I set out to create a tension, throughout the book, between formalism and free verse,” she says.

Anzalone’s poetry is full of intriguing titles, many of them sounding like potential indie-rock hits—“Crayon Savant,” “Lamaze With Still Life,” “Eggshell Pilgrim.” Do her titles sometimes come first?

“They almost always come after. A title can either open up or shut down a poem, so I always like to aim for the suggestive rather than the summative. With these, I was consciously trying to create unity within the book as a whole. ‘Crayon Savant,’ for instance, points to the importance of color and art in books.”

Anzalone insists her poetry “has gotten a lot more fun” as a result of living in Vegas these last two years. For her, Sin City is a “brutally inspirational” place to live. Here the human condition is trapped in a pressure cooker of heat and ongoing economic decline.

“I’ve seen things here I’ll never see anywhere else,” she says. “But now, like that laser-light show at Sam’s Town, my poetry boasts animatronics! Seriously, though, I’m grateful for the time I have spent here, friends I’ve made, the community of writers that has embraced me.” 

See Anzalone’s collaboration with UNLV MFA student Shannon Eakins at the Vegas Valley Book Festival in November.

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